Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Dialogue: the spoken, the unspoken

I've been thinking about dialogue and what makes it work for me.  It seems that it's a fine balance between what is said between characters and what is left unsaid.  Sometimes, it's a signpost to things unknown to the characters themselves, things lurking just below the surface.  In this way, it's much like writing the narrative portions.  The writer's job, it seems, is to make a bit of a puzzle of it, something for the reader to figure out. 

One of the best scenes of dialogue I can recall comes at the end of Ingmar Bergman's classic movie, Scenes from a Marriage.  As the title implies, the movie is an intimate look inside the relationship between Marianne and Johan.  They argue, make love, separate and reunite, then separate again.  As in many Bergman movies, the dialogue is frequent and microscopic; however, there's always an uncertainty with these characters.  Is Marianne frigid and unreachable in some way?  Is Johan able to truly bond with anyone?  Their relationship proceeds in fits and starts; even after divorce, they are unable to let each other go.  In the final scene, they have the following exchange.  In the video, it occurs toward the end of the five minutes.  Even in Swedish you can feel the uncertainty, the familiarity amidst the unfamiliarity.

Yes, my dear.
Are we living in utter confusion?
You and I?
No, all of us.
What do you mean?
I'm talking about fear, uncertainty and ignorance.
Do you think that secretly we're afraid we're slipping downhill and don't know what to do?
Yes, I think so.
Is it too late?
But we shouldn't say things like that.  Only think them.
Have we missed something important?
All of us?
No, you and I.
What would that be?
At times I can read your mind, and I feel such tenderness that I forget myself.  Without having to efface myself.  It's a new sensation.  Do you understand?
I understand.
Sometimes it grieves me that I've never loved anyone.  I don't think I've ever been loved either.  That distresses me.
Now you're being dramatic.
Am I?
I know what I feel.  I love you in my selfish way.  And I think you love me in your fussy, pestering way.  We love each other in an earthly and imperfect way.  But you're so demanding.
I am.
But here I am, in the middle of the night, without much fanfare, in a dark house somewhere in the world, sitting with my arms around you.  And your arms are around me.  I'm not the most compassionate of men.
No, you're not.
I don't seem to have the imagination for it.
No, you're rather unimaginative.
I don't know what my love looks like, and I can't describe it.  Most of the time I can't feel it.
And you really think I love you too?
Yes, I do.  But if we harp on it, our love will evaporate.
Let's sit like this all night.
Oh, no, let's not.
One leg's gone to sleep, my left arm's practically dislocated, I'm sleepy, and my back's cold.
Then let's snuggle down.
Yes, let's.
Good night, my darling.  It was good talking to you.
Sleep well.
Thanks.  Same to you

And just like that, just when we felt worn down by the intense view of this relationship, at the end of the movie, we come full circle, feeling at once comforted and frightened by the fragility and confusion of human interactions.  Marianne and Johan's marriage remains a complete enigma and yet, makes perfect sense.  Is this love they're feeling?  With all of their dialogue, are they truly communicating at all?

1 comment:

  1. Oh, I love that scene - it's sublime... even in translation where perhaps it's not wholly faithful to the nuances of the original Swedish.

    Have enjoyed some Bergman's films but for some strange reason have never seen that one and think I may have to add it to the collection now.


"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka